The story revolves around the work of Nelson Mandela from the end of South Africa’s apartheid and through the first year or so of his presidency of the country. More specifically his work with the national rugby team, the Springboks, as a way to bring blacks and whites together to bond while trying to put years of oppression behind them between the once white controlled minority government in the predominantly black country.
As the native population finally achieves an equal status in the country, they instantly want to change things to their tradition and ridding themselves of any British ties. Mandela knows this is not possible if they are to succeed, and his strategizing and posturing to keep the peace and bring people closer together rather than father a part are the highlights of the film. These actions are even more powerful as this story and this man are real, making the work he does truly remarkable and inspiring. Morgan Freeman and most of his work and scenes in the film are what makes the film viable and one of the only real reasons to see this film; luckily he is in a lot of the picture.
Sadly the rest of the film doesn’t work nearly as well. Eastwood does not have a good grip on filming the sport of rugby and I was never really that enthralled or compelled by the events on the field which fill up the third act. The only rugby stuff that works was the charity camps the team puts on in the slums which was poignant and humorous and one of the highlights of the film. Outside of that there isn’t a lot for the rugby players to do, even Matt Damon as the Springboks team captain Francois Pienaar. Damon nails the accent but is unfortunately not given much to do with it. He is written thin and we really don’t get the sense of pride this guy really felt and that he was helping bring his country together. In fact, I wish we would have gotten to know this team a lot more and well beyond just Damon. The team is relegated to nothing more than a bunch of faces on the field, how are we supposed to get behind and care for these guys. Maybe if they spent less time focusing on the completely uninteresting and dull body guards we could have cared about the team in the least bit.
In fact, the focus given to the body guards was the films biggest misstep and the messages we get out of their story are plentiful in the plot and help contribute to the overkill of the “black and white together” message. The film also drums up the threat on Mandela’s life way to often when they could have just established it at the beginning and we would have been able to infer on our own that the threat was there; or at least be a bit more subtle with the implication. Subtle is in fact not in the vocabulary of the filmmakers here as the film beats things over your head and treats the audiences intelligence as being rather non-existent really dumbing things down and repeating points to make points painfully clear.
Stylistically and structurally the film could have used some added pep and more forward movement. The fore mentioned body guard scenes drag things to a halt and aren’t funny. In fact, most of the humor falls flat in the film. The film needed another pass in the edit room as well for my taste as things tend to crawl to the finish. And last but not least, the finale had two glaring eye rolling tics going for it, repetitive establishing shots of the CGI crowd in the stadium and around the city, seemingly every 10 seconds they pan across the crowd cheering or to a group of people watching the game, and egregious use of slow-mo. I think at one point the film is in slow motion for literally two to four minutes, it was ridiculous. Also, the insertion of the awful original song, full of relevant but terrible lyrics, was so awkward and out of place it stuck out like a sore thumb.
In the end, Invictus is quite the mixed bag. On one hand we have some great work by Freeman and some compelling story telling around Mandela and in the other there isn’t a lot to write home about. Stylistically the film is a bit odd and Eastwood and company focus on a couple of plot lines that really don’t deserve the attention they receive. The film is about Mandela and the Rugby team yet we learn nothing about the Rugby team. Instead we are hit over the head relentlessly with the black and white together imagery and focus on a number of characters that aren’t really interesting or important. Freeman is worth watching if you’re a fan and the film is by no means bad, I just feel like it could have been and done so much more if it focused its vision and didn’t try to be so all encompassing.